I have ridden a horse a couple of times but never at speed. A slight canter is fine, the prospect of full gallop terrifies me. And for someone to suggest that I train as a jockey would bring unbridled fear.
Matt Hancock trained as a jockey, I kid you not. As the Member of Parliament for West Suffolk since 2010, a constituency based on Newmarket and an economy almost entirely derived from horse racing and the surrounding stables, the former Health Secretary is fully aware of the importance of the sport of kings. And so, to participate in a charity race, Hancock trained to ride at speed. Yep, he’s a good man in the saddle.
Last week, this rising star of Conservative politics was forced to ignominiously resign from the health portfolio and in the middle of this 18- months’-long coronavirus pandemic after salacious images of him were published in one of the classic “gotcha” moments of Fleet Street tabloid journalism. Last Friday, The Sun published images of Hancock snogging an aide in rather awkward fashion in a Whitehall office. The video — yes, even mass-circulation tabloid rags have embraced videos to spice up their readership — shows he and Gina Coladangelo in a back office. Too bad it was before the government had relaxed its social distancing rules to allow such things. Too bad also that she was a married woman. And certainly too bad too that the 42-year-old MP portrayed himself to his constituents in West Suffolk as an upholder of family values, wedded and the father of three children.
During normal times, trying to explain away that tryst would be a difficult twist. But these are not normal times, and the doe-eyed boy responsible for health held perhaps the most important role in government second only to that of the office of Prime Minister.
For weeks, there had been growing rumblings that Hancock’s performance wasn’t up to snuff, fed by a drip of leaks from the ultimate Downing Street inside now throwing barbs from his blog. Dominic Cummings, once Boris Johnson’s right hand man, let it be known that Johnson was no fan of his Health Secretary, that when the pandemic was done, the minister would be reshuffled, and the PM once described him as “utterly [expletive] hopeless”.
Not for the first time the British public rose up in unified anger at the hypocrisy of senior government officials who lectured everyone on how to behave during this pandemic while doing the opposite themselves.
One the news was out in the public domain, public disdain knew no bounds.
On the evening following that Friday’s morning revelations, Hancock held a Zoom meeting with his local party, refusing to take questions as it was considered to be a private affair. Affair? There were images of Hancock’s devastated wife, Martha, walking near her home in tears. Unlike her husband, she likes to keep her personal life private. Her grandfather was the First Baron Inchyra who served as the UK ambassador to West Germany between 1955 and 1956, her great grandfather was the First Viscount Camrose.
They married in 2006. They may divorce soon, with her husband and lover now vowing to set up together and begin a new life.
Hancock’s acquaintanceship with Coladangelo goes back to their university days when both worked on a student radio station. He was a sports reporter and she read the news, telling others that the future politician “wasn’t smart enough” to be able to do a news bulletin.
Since COVID-19 struck, Hancock had been the face of this pandemic, appearing at lecterns, delivering advice to stay apart, stay at home and endure — now it seems all the while as he carried on with Coladangelo.
He famously set a target to conduct 100,000 Covid tests a day by the end of April 2020, a target which he said he met — even if experts said he jigged the figures.
Hancock has repeatedly denied Cummings’ claims of lying to the prime minister about care home testing and procurement of personal protective equipment during the first COVID wave.
Like other ministers, he has repeatedly stressed the importance of people keeping their distance and following government guidance. Yet he had already apologised once before for breaching the advice — saying sorry for a “human mistake” in June last year after he was caught on camera slapping the back of a colleague in the House of Commons.
Backslapping a colleague is one thing, backhanders another. Hancock has also faced questions over how his department awarded Covid contracts at the height of the first wave of the pandemic — a £30 million (Dh152 million) contract happened to go to neighbour and pub landlord, and he has been slapped on the wrist by the ethical standards people at Westminster for failing to declare that his brother-in-law was a director on a company that was a supplier for the National Health Service.
According to his parliamentary profile, Hancock was born in Cheshire in 1978, and privately educated at the King’s School in Chester, before later studying computing at a further education college. He went on to study politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University before briefly working for a Conservative backbencher and at the Bank of England.
He entered the political world as an adviser to then-shadow chancellor George Osborne and his eventual chief of staff.
His big break came in early 2018, when, aged 39, he became the youngest member of May’s cabinet after she appointed him culture, media and sport secretary. She made him health secretary in a reshuffle. After she quit, he did throw his hat in the ring to replace her, coming in sixth in the leadership race that would take Johnson to Downing Street. He backed Johnson and was rewarded with the health portfolio for his loyalty. Now, his loyalties lie elsewhere, as does he.